Art theft: Overseas shopping list?

Maggie Laubser Cat and Japonicas, 1936 oil on board 560 x 610mm

An official hinted on Monday that growing international demand for South African artwork might be the reason for a brazen robbery at the Pretoria Art Museum where art worth about R17.5m was stolen.

Five pieces were stolen from the museum’s permanent collection on Sunday when thieves posing as art students staged a daring arm robbery.

“Three men, under the pretence of being students and their art lecturer, asked to view specific pieces. After they were shown the paintings, they then tied up the museum official at gunpoint and took off with six paintings,” mayoral spokesperson Pieter de Necker said.

“They left one painting [by] Irma Stern behind. Presumably because it was too big to fit into their [getaway] car.”

The thieves left as private security guards at the museum drew close to them, he said.

According to museum staff, the thieves arrived with a “shopping list” of what they wanted, and demanded to be given specific paintings, Sapa reported.

After holding staff member Dawood Khan at gunpoint, they took out their list, and demanded to know where the paintings were.

De Necker said he and others believe the thieves were commissioned to go after those specific pieces because of their behaviour at the museum, according to AP.

“We’re very, very surprised. It is very uncommon,” he said.

“We have realised also that over the last few years … the overseas market has grown into wanting South African art.”

The robbers favoured oil paintings in their theft, grabbing a 1931 painting by artist Irma Stern of brightly coloured fishing boats waiting against a pier (Fishing Boats), a gouache drawing of an eland and bird (Eland And Bird – 1961) by landscape artist JH Pierneef, a pastel-toned street scene (Street Scene) by Gerard Sekoto, a thick-stroked oil painting of a chief (Hottentot Chief) by Hugo Naude and a 1936 picture of a cat near a vase full of petunias (Cat And Petunias) by Maggie Laubser.

Lucrative crime

Art theft is the third most lucrative crime in the world, after drugs and illicit arms sales, according to Interpol and the FBI.

However, actually selling famous works remains difficult for criminals either locally where the theft happened or abroad, authorities say.

Despite the challenges, estimates suggest there are billions of dollars made in stolen art sales annually across the world.

De Necker said national and international art organisations had been notified about the robbery and had been forwarded details of the paintings.

Police spokesperson Katlego Mogale said authorities had been alerted in case the thieves tried to take the art work outside of the country.

“The investigation is continuing,” Mogale said. “Every measure is being put in place.”

The museum has closed provisionally and will re-open on on 20 November.

“The art museum has taken precautionary steps by removing other valuable pieces until the police have completed their investigation,” De Necker said.

He said that the city would also tighten security at the museum.

Three private security guards were on duty when the robbery took place, and security cameras were out of order.

“It is unfortunate the CCTV cameras were not working this weekend. A fault was reported on Thursday and has been fixed today,” said De Necker.

He said the brazen robbery was a wake-up call that security needed to be tightened at museums across South Africa.

“Security at museums should be improved. This incident calls for extra measures to be implemented,” he said. – Sapa/AP